Is it good or bad to have a ‘signature sound’?

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Is it good or bad to have a ‘signature sound’?

Satisfaction doesn’t come easily when we’re talkin’ music. When something is released, that’s great – but now what? Does the artist then release something that’s the same, or something totally different?

It’s magnified when an artist comes out with a totally new sound. It’s so sick, it’s genre-defying, it’s compelling. It’s new and exciting and we all want a piece. But what happens when they release their next track or album? If it sounds exactly the same as the last one, we’ll complain about it being repetitive. But if it changes course entirely, we’ll probably complain too. Essentially is it good or bad to have a ‘signature sound’ – and how far can you go?

Let’s look at some examples.

I’ll start with the blaringly obvious: Flume. His debut album blew us all away. His signature sound was not only unique and new, but it spawned an entire generation of future-beats warped-spacey-synth music clones. And you know what? It’s a great sound. Sure, we all may have heard enough Flume to last us a lifetime, but I still like it.

This week, his new track was leaked. It’s good, of course. The general consensus – myself included – is that it sounds ‘Flumey.’ But is that bad? Are we complaining that his new music sounds like his old music? Or praising it? He has a signature sound – so obviously it’s going to sound, well, similar. Would you have preferred he release deep house or minimal tech or something?

Let’s look at another example. MGMT. ‘Oracular Spectacular’ was one of the greatest electro-pop albums of the last two decades, and their first few singles are absolutely timeless. They were an instant world-dominating game changer. Then their second album came out. It couldn’t have been more different from OS. It was slammed by critics and fans and they all but disappeared into obscurity. (until releasing a totally average record last year)

But if MGMT had released a second album that sounded really similar to the first, we probably would have complained too. We would’ve said that they’re just re-hashing, that they’re afraid of change, that they had their moment but they’ve overblown it.

Skrillex’s recent album ‘Recess’ isn’t dubstep. That sure shocked a lot of people (and pleased a lot of others.) A lot of the extended tracks of Deamau5’s While (1<2) sound more like Nine Inch Nails instrumentals than prog-house bangers, that probably upset some folk too. On the other side, Jungle’s self-titled debut had a couple of big hits, but mostly just sounded exactly the same from track to track. MSTRKRFT’s two albums, as good as they are, could be pretty much interchangeable. And, as much as I love them, I feel fairly similarly about Glass Animals’ ‘ZABA’ – while there’s some absolute beauties there, the fillers don’t really do anything special. Simian Mobile Disco are another example – they’ve recently taken a much sterner approach to electronic music. ‘Unpatterns,’ their latest release, is a bout of heavy-ass techno. It’s totally different to their earlier stuff. And it’s great. I love Zhu’s debut EP, and it’s clear that he already has a signature sound. But what do I want in his next record – something that sounds totally similar, or something new and different?

There’s a lot of artists who don’t fall into either of these categories, obviously. Recent releases from Caribou and SBTRKT come to mind – two artists with a recognisable feel, vibe or style, but it still doesn’t sound the same from release to release. Maybe this comes down to the fact that there’s so much diversity in their music thanks to being so genre-mashing, using various vocalists and so on.

Maybe there’s a difference between having a signature style and sound? I mean, whole genres were formed around one sound – look at house music, it’s existence can almost be traced entirely back to the Roland 303’s squelchy bass. Dubstep orbited entirely around a break, a drop and specific bpms.

There’s no answer, there’s no solution, and a lot of you may not agree with any of this. It’s an observation that no matter what happens – whether an artist ventures into new genres, or if they stay where they’re comfortable, we’re gonna complain. There’s no way that an artist can always maintain a signature sound without sounding repetitive, and there’s also no way that an artist can constantly change without criticsm. Do we just get on with it? Or do we constantly live in fear that something will be too samey – or too different?

Or do we just go ’round and ’round in circles forever and ever and ever…



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